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Trump has hill to climb with women voters, and it just got steeper

How voters see it

Donald Trump's campaign manager has been charged with battery for an incident involving a female reporter. He's already facing a big gender gap in the general election.

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski (left) speaks with an unidentified aide after a demonstrator was detained at an Ohio rally March 12. Mr. Lewandowski has been charged with simple battery for intentionally grabbing and bruising the arm of reporter Michelle Fields in a Florida incident March 8.
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This story was updated on March 30, 2016.

Once again, Donald Trump is risking the support of women voters – but it’s not the voters you might think.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with simple battery in an incident this month involving a female reporter. The Republican presidential candidate is standing by the side of his aide, and the campaign proclaimed his innocence.

And so is Kayleigh McEnany, a columnist and Trump supporter. Ms. McEnany, a guest on CNN as the charges against Mr. Lewandowski became public Tuesday, was quick to jump to the defense of Trump and his aide. “This is not Donald Trump. This is an allegation against his campaign manager,” who deserves the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, she said.

Like many other female Trump supporters, her faith in her candidate is unshaken, even as this incident follows a string of controversial Trump comments about women: against the journalism of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, the looks of former competitor Carly Fiorina, the bathroom break of Hillary Clinton, and lately, about the appearance of rival Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi.

Exit polls actually show Trump outdoing his competitors among women voters in 12 out of 20 Republican primaries and caucuses to date, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J.

“It’s important to distinguish between the women voters who are nominating him and the women voters he will need to win a general election,” says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the center. “These are very different groups of women voters.”

And that’s the key to the risk Trump is taking with these kinds of incidents.

To date, a pattern that many deem misogynistic, sexist, or at the least, insensitive, seems to have had little effect on front-runner Trump’s primary campaign. That’s because his women supporters like him for other reasons, says Ms. Dittmar. They see him as an outsider, as someone who tells it like it is, as someone who is strong on national security.

All that would change dramatically should Trump become the Republican nominee. At that point, he’d be campaigning for a wider electorate where women lean heavily against him. Just 21 percent of women voters view him favorably, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in early March, versus a whopping 70 percent who view him negatively.

Even in the near term, the charging of Trump’s campaign manager comes at a bad time for the candidate. Next Tuesday, primary voters go to the polls in Wisconsin. It comes after a pause in the GOP contests, with no other state on the horizon until New York on April 19. Republican commentator William Kristol, who denounces Trump as not a real conservative, calls Wisconsin an opportunity for a “reset,” like New Hampshire after Iowa.

Cruz is very much hoping for a reset. Polls show him with a good shot at winning the state. Former GOP presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker endorsed Cruz on Tuesday – a day after Trump ran into a couple of buzz saws with two conservative radio hosts who are with the #NeverTrump movement.

One of them, Charlie Sykes, interviewing Trump, likened the candidate’s attacks on Cruz’s wife to that of a “12-year-old bully on the playground.” Trump didn’t back down, pointing to the “tremendous numbers of women” he’s hired and promoted.

The incident with Trump’s campaign manager goes back to a March 8 campaign event in Florida. Michelle Fields, who then worked for the conservative media organization Breitbart News, says she was pulled away so hard when trying to interview Trump that it left bruises on her arm. The Jupiter, Fla., police have determined there is enough evidence to charge Mr. Lewandowski with the battery misdemeanor, releasing a video of the incident.

In the video, it looks like Lewandowski is pulling Fields backward, visually rebutting earlier claims by Trump and Lewandowski that the campaign manager never touched the reporter. But on Tuesday Trump tweeted: “Look at tapes – nothing there!” He urged his campaign manager to "never settle."

The billionaire’s rivals and other critics were quick to take advantage of the development.

Cruz said the incident was a consequence of the “abusive culture” of the Trump campaign while John Weaver, a senior aide to Republican candidate John Kasich said that if Lewandowski worked for Mr. Kasich, he would be fired, adding that “campaigns reflect the values of the candidate.”

Ms. Dittmar suggests that the strategic use of the charge against Lewandowski could make a difference in a state such as Wisconsin “that is less than friendly to Trump already.”

However, the much bigger risk to Trump among women voters is in the general election – especially if he goes up against Hillary Clinton. He will need to win over independent women voters or women Democrats, Dittmar says, adding that some Republican women may well stay home.

Women tend to favor Democrats over Republicans, and in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll’s matchup of Trump versus Mrs. Clinton, the difference is glaring: 58 percent of women said they would choose Clinton, while 31 percent said they would choose Trump. In 2012, Barack Obama bested Mitt Romney by a far slimmer margin among women voters, 55 to 44 percent.

“This is not what women want in a president,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, speaking of the video released by the Jupiter police department. She believes Trump’s comments about women will “energize” turnout for Clinton, including among independents “and even some Republicans” as a vote against Trump.

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